DURHAM — Durham leaders are taking a stand against a new charter high school planned for the Research Triangle Park area, saying it will siphon money from traditional public schools and lead to further racial segregation.
The Durham school board has sent a strongly worded resolution to the State Board of Education opposing Research Triangle High School, one of nine proposed charter schools seeking fast-track approval to open in the fall. The board meets today to begin discussing charter applications. A vote is expected in March.
Joining the opposition are state House representatives from Durham, who wrote the state board Monday, saying, "We cannot in good conscience support the approval of this charter at this time." The school board seeks support in the fight also from city and county leaders in Durham.
Durham, with its relatively high per-pupil funding, already has eight charter schools serving more than 3,000 students, said a letter from school Superintendent Eric Becoats. That represents an 8.7 percent market share of students - the highest in the state. About $10 million of local funding goes to charters, and expansion already planned by charters in Durham will mean an additional loss of $11 million in local funding annually.
Now that the state has opened the door to unlimited charters, Durham leaders fear another surge.
"There is a potential for just a profound negative impact on our school system here in Durham," said Heidi Carter, vice chairwoman of the Durham school board.
Such local unrest is likely be replicated as North Carolina embarks on a new era of charter schools. Last year, the Republican-led legislature voted to lift North Carolina's 100-school cap on charter schools. Although just nine schools are up for approval for the fall, more are expected to seek permission to operate next year.
Charter schools receive public money but operate independently of elected school boards. They are not subject to the same rules and regulations of other public schools and do not charge tuition. Students apply and are chosen by lottery.
Research Triangle High is proposed as a school focused on science, technology, engineering and math that will serve 420 students in ninth through 12th grades. The application includes the possibility of a middle school down the road.
Durham leaders say that by locating near Research Triangle Park, the charter will target RTP employees and draw mainly white, affluent parents. Durham public schools are 51 percent African American, 22 percent Hispanic and 21 percent white. More than 60 percent of Durham students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
A tug of war predicted
Carter said the proposed charter would work directly against the school board's plans to transform Southern High School into a STEM school.
"We just believe this charter school in particular is going to compete with some of the innovative programs that we're trying to get off the ground in a successful way," Carter said. "We'll be in a tug of war with them for students, teachers, partnerships out in the park, internship opportunities for students."
John Betterton, chairman of the state's charter advisory council, said the panel is supposed to consider only quality, not the location of a school.
Betterton, principal of a charter school in Roxboro, said all schools can benefit. "Competition really raises the bar," he said.
Pamela Blizzard, who heads the planning for the proposed new school, declined to comment Tuesday. But in a letter to the state board, she wrote that such criticisms stem from a lack of awareness of the school's plans. She said the school has recruitment plans that will target African American and Hispanic families. The school will provide a "smart" device, such as a smart phone or tablet, to any student who can't afford it and will contract with Triangle Transit Authority to provide free bus transportation on regional routes.
"RTHS is strongly committed to enrolling a student population that represents the diversity of the broad Triangle region in all its forms," Blizzard wrote.
RTHS, being developed by founders of Raleigh Charter High School, was recommended for approval by the advisory council, along with two other proposed schools in the Triangle - The Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Charter Academy in the Chapel Hill area and Triangle Math and Science Academy in Wake County.
State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison said the arguments about RTHS competing with Durham schools would not be reason enough to vote against the charter. He met with Durham school board members last week, and the charter advisory council considered Becoats' letter before recommending the high school.
The advisory council has been very thorough, Harrison said, and its recommendations will carry considerable weight.
Harrison added that Durham may be raising legitimate issues about whether a concentration of charters in one county could hurt traditional schools' ability to offer a quality education.
The board will have to grapple with that question in the future, he said.
Questions for Durham
Durham school leaders should look at why charters are so popular in their county rather than try to stop them, Betterton said. "I think the leadership and the board in that system needs to begin to ask some serious questions," he said.
In addition to the new charter high school, two existing charters in Durham, Kestrel Heights and Voyager Academy, are requesting enrollment increases of more than 20 percent.
Kestrel Heights also is looking to add grades K-5 next year to become a K-12 school. Its director, Tim Dugan, said charters may one day enroll up to 50 percent of Durham's children.
He has little sympathy with Durham leaders' concerns about market share or finances.
After decades of holding a monopoly on education, the public school system is going to have to compete to keep students, Dugan said.
"They're going to have to work harder, they're going to have to work smarter. As a taxpayer, I think it's a wonderful thing," he said. "Eventually, we're going to end up with a competing dual system of traditional public schools and charter schools that will improve the overall education level that we're able to give our kids."
But Becoats raised the question of whether, in a time of budget cuts and financial stress, it makes sense to open new charter schools.
"Extending already-scarce resources even further for programs already provided to students is not financially prudent and severely impedes the state's ability to move public education forward," Becoats wrote.